Pacific Island Countries are highly exposed to climate change. Most impact studies have focused on the most densely populated core areas where top-down governance is most effective. In contrast, this research looks at peripheral (rural/outer-island) communities where long-established systems of environmental governance exist that contrast markedly with those which governments and their donor partners in this region favour. Peripheral communities in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, and Vanuatu were studied. Traditional systems of environmental governance are described, and three common barriers to effective and sustainable climate-change adaptation identified. The first is lack of awareness among key community decision makers about climate change and associated environmental sustainability that could be lessened by targeted awareness raising. The second is the inappropriateness of traditional decision-making structures for dealing with both the complexity and pace of climate-driven environmental changes. The third is the short-term views of resource management and sustainability held by many community decision makers. Despite 30 years of assistance, there has been negligible effective and sustainable adaptation for climate change in peripheral parts of Pacific Island Countries, something that is explicable by both the ineffectiveness of top-down approaches in such places as well as a lack of attention to the nature and the context of adaptation communications. It is timely for interventions to be made at community level where the greatest disconnect lies between the science and stakeholder awareness of climate change.